Since LeBron James signed with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018, the team’s front office has attempted to ease the burden on him by pairing him with proven ball-handlers like Rajon Rondo, Dennis Schröder and, most recently, Russell Westbrook.
While that plan seemed to be working well over the last two years, James, in his 19th season, is currently averaging 37 minutes per game, which is tied for the second-most in the NBA with Kevin Durant, and is the most minutes he’s averaged since the 2016-17 season.
That increased workload has become a cause of concern for Lakers fans, especially with his 37th birthday just around the corner, but it’s not a concern of the coaching staff because James hasn’t made them feel like it is.
“LeBron don’t give us a choice!” Interim head coach Dave Fizdale said before the Lakers’ game on Tuesday. “What you talking ‘bout? LeBron is like ‘put me out there.’ This guy is a freak, man. It’s so cool being with him again.”
Fizdale says that in situations where the Lakers are trailing — like their recent game against the Chicago Bulls — James will tell him that he can play a few extra minutes, and that he wants to stay on the floor.
“He just kept saying ‘I want to stay in here. I want to stay in here,’” Fizdale said. “So, no, I don’t have a concern is the short answer. But again, I’m not here that long (laughs). That’s easy for me to say as an assistant... The higher-ups and our medical team will obviously have to make those decisions. But the way he prepares himself and the liveliness that he brings to the game, no, I don’t (have a concern).”
It’s not just the minutes that are worrisome to the fanbase at large, though; it’s also where he’s playing them. This season, James has played 3% of his minutes at center, which is the most he’s played since the 2018-19 season. But similar to the amount of minutes he’s playing, James is unbothered by where he’s spending his time.
“I only played 34 minutes, so obviously defensive things change when I’m playing at the 5, battling vs. a lot of those bigs, but that’s fine,” James said after the team’s loss to the Suns. “It makes no difference to me. When I’m out on the floor I’ve got to make plays offensively and defensively.”
In the 34 minutes James played against the Suns on Tuesday, the Lakers’ net rating was -1.4 with him on the floor. With James off of the floor, that net rating plummeted to -56.1. In layman’s terms, there’s a reason he’s playing so many minutes.
The hope is that the Lakers will be able to give James a break once the team is fully healthy, but given the injury luck they’ve had and the surge in COVID cases on the team — and across the league — a fully healthy team feels like a pipe dream. And if that’s the case, James will be earning every single cent of the $41.1 million he’s due this season.